Friday, 20 April 2018 14:44

ASM Member Barney Graham Talks Influenza Vaccines at a Smithsonian Event

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Published in Outbreak Exhibit

ASM Science Outreach Manager Katherine Lontok hosts "Pathogen Plinko" to teach Museum goers about microbes while they wait to hear talks about influenza.ASM hosted "Pathogen Plinko" to talk with Museum goers about microbes while waiting to hear talks about influenza.

On March 7, 2018, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History was brimming with visitors attending a public event about influenza. The event featured scientific presentations from researchers looking into different avenues of flu prevention and treatment, as well as exhibits by scientific organizations, including ASM. One of the presenters, longtime ASM member Barney Graham, spoke about his research into influenza vaccines, in a talk that I was able to attend virtually thanks to the Smithsonian Magazine Facebook livestream of the event. The event was part of the Museum’s programming built around the upcoming ASM-sponsored “Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World” exhibit, and so naturally, when I had a chance to speak with Graham after his talk, my first question was whether he’d been able to get a sneak peek at the exhibit. “I didn’t really have time to see it,” he said. “I’d like to see it, I know it’s going to open in May, and I’m hoping to be able to take my grandchildren once it does.” 


Graham’s presentation was one of the several research-based talks that translated lab results into a big-picture summary for the general public. Graham literally gave the audience a big-picture talk, opening with a 10-foot rotating image of the influenza A virus hemagglutinin protein projected on the screen behind him. 


2018.4.20 Graham 1Barney Graham talks about influenza vaccines using a large projection of the influenza HA glycoprotein.

“I’m a very visual person, and I usually try to use graphics. Nowadays, we have 3D-printed models, so we can use those too,” he told me after his talk, though in a lecture setting like the Smithsonian event, it can be cumbersome to pass around a model for everyone to see. So Graham opted for the rotating 3D structure, which he explained is the part of the virus required for it to enter host cells, pointing to some areas that interact with host cells and others that can be bound by antibodies. He spoke about the concept of antigenic drift, pointing to regions of the molecule that may change its shape and affect interactions with antibodies, and antigenic shift, describing how the entire molecule can be replaced with a different version. This led to a discussion of the influence of previous influenza infections on individual immunity, and how previous infections can affect the response to vaccine strains.


“The issue is that the language is complex, not the concepts themselves,” Graham later told me. “If you can explain concepts in common terms without the jargon, most people on the street can understand immunological concepts,” such as antibody binding sites and T cell-mediated killing. He aims to explain visually, because it removes the need for some of the complex language that can intimidate those first encountering immunology and vaccine theories.


While Graham hasn’t presented at the Smithsonian Museums previously, he has a long history of thinking deeply about and practicing science communication. He first began outreach during his work in HIV clinical trials when he was at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. This was at the height of the HIV epidemic, when there was a lot of mistrust and misunderstanding about the cause of the disease, and Graham and his colleagues had a hard sell to find volunteers willing to be injected with vaccines containing pieces of HIV genetic material. The researchers realized that before they could test their vaccines, they first had to start an education campaign to allay the fears of potential volunteers.


Graham and his colleagues initiated educational outreach programs, where community members learned what it meant to be vaccinated and how vaccination works. Graham hoped that education would increase the number of volunteers willing to take part in vaccine trials, but also hoped it would improve general scientific communications between researchers at universities and their neighboring communities. He realized that communication required a two-way dialog, not a one-way lecture. “You can’t convince someone who has a larger belief system by presenting a set of dry facts,” he told me. “If someone thinks vaccines are inherently bad, you can’t change their mind by giving them facts about how vaccines are good. You have to approach it through a different way, such as educating them how vaccines work, without judgement.” It was an effective approach that was able to build trust by involving minority and other historically underserved communities from the beginning. The success of Graham and his colleagues has allowed them to help others develop similar programs. 


Barney Graham holding a 3D modelBarney Graham holding a 3D model of an H1 hemagglutinin molecule. Source

Since then, Graham has moved his lab to the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Disease, where he continues to develop vaccine strategies for different diseases. One of his successes has been in developing a vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), an organism with a flexible glycoprotein called the F protein, which can switch between two conformations. Graham and his collaborators have developed a stable F protein that can’t change its conformation, and this stable protein generates a strong protective immune response in animal models. The subunit vaccine is now undergoing Phase 1 clinical trial to test its safety and tolerability in adults.


Graham ended his talk at the Smithsonian using his RSV F protein success as an example of what may be possible one day for influenza hemagglutinin. He highlighted the microscopy advances that have allowed scientists to determine the exact molecular interactions at each part of the protein. “The ability to design things at the atomic level and really see what we’re doing has helped RSV vaccine development,” he told the crowd, as the screen behind him showed the two F protein shapes. “By learning to stabilize the protein, we’ve generated the type of protein shape that can elicit about 100 times better antibody responses. Imagine if we do this with influenza.”


“For this talk,” Graham later said to me, “I wanted people to have a sense of hope when they left the room, to think that it’s not hopeless to have a better flu vaccine. I wanted them to have images in their mind of how it worked.” Graham’s enthusiasm about the awesome world around us and the amazing tools we have to explore it is contagious, and one he particularly tries to share with young people in the audience. Of the Smithsonian attendees, Graham noted, “I want the 10-12 year olds in the front row to become excited about science. If our middle schoolers knew what was possible now, I’m certain 90% of them would want to be scientists!”


There are many more events planned around the Outbreak exhibit, starting with its opening on May 18th, 2018. Stay tuned to this space for announcements of future events planned around the exhibit!


 Cover photo credit: NIAID Flickr


Last modified on Friday, 20 April 2018 15:23
Julie Wolf

Julie Wolf is the ASM Science Communications Specialist. She contributes to the ASM social media and blog network and hosts the Meet the Microbiologist podcast. She also runs workshops at ASM conferences to help scientists improve their own communication skills. Follow Julie on Twitter for more ASM and microbiology highlights at @JulieMarieWolf.

Julie earned her Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota, focusing on medical mycology and infectious disease. Outside of her work at ASM, she maintains a strong commitment to scientific education and teaches molecular biology at the community biolab, Genspace. She lives in beautiful New York City.